“Robots:” Not just for kids

Ted Pigeon

Robots – ***

Starring Ewan McGregor,

Robin Williams, Halle Berry,

Drew Carey and Mel Brooks

Directed by Chris Wedge

and Carlos Saldanha

Running Time: 93 min.

Rated PG

Computer animation as of late seems to have evolved into its own genre independent of standard of animation. Since it’s introduction to the Hollywood mainstream a decade ago with “Toy Story,” its popularity has surged to the point that there is almost always an animated film or two among the year’s top grossing films.

It seems that studios like Pixar and DreamWorks are constantly trying to outdo each other and themselves by stretching this new technology to the limit with each new film. The downside to all this is that since there are a number of great animated films as of late, the ones that aren’t groundbreaking or revolutionary in some way seem to get swept under the carpet, regardless of their quality.

A good example of this is the film, “Robots,” the new animated comedy from the director and studio of “Ice Age.” Much like “Ice Age,” “Robots” is a film that breaks no new ground and does nothing particularly extraordinary. And while it may be headed for animation oblivion, it is a fairly pleasant diversion that satisfies on the level of pure enjoyment. The story is a grabbag of various other stories from movies new and old, and the animation, though good, isn’t even in the same league as Pixar’s recent work. This gap will likely generate a bias against “Robots,” much like it did for “Shark Tale” back on October, since that too didn’t break any new ground at all. However, unlike “Shark Tale,” “Robots” is a fun and entertaining way to spend 90 minutes.

The story is perfunctory, as it is almost required to be, and it involves a young auspicious robot named Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who decided to travel to Robot City to become a successful inventor so that he can help his mother and father get by. When he arrives in the big city, he finds himself both amazed and intimidated by all that’s around him, but he is welcomed by a group of street robots that befriend him. One of these robots, Fender (voiced by Robin Williams) becomes something of a sidekick for the young Copperbottom.

If you were to imagine the Genie from Aladdin as a robot, then you’d have a pretty good idea of what Fender is like. His character gives the film its comic anchor as it unfolds. Copperbottom is met with resistance in the form of the city’s major robot corporation and its new owner, Phineas Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) who will do anything it takes to make more money, even if it means the extinction of all outdated robots.

This is the kind of film that creates a whole world to set its story and characters, and in the case of this film, the details of the world and environment surrounding the characters is even more important than the characters themselves. The story establishes itself very quickly as something that isn’t particularly original, as it strongly echoes both “Pinocchio” and the “Wizard of Oz,” but we’re willing to forgive the somewhat stale story because of the freshness and invention of the world in which it is set.

When the Robot City is first unveiled some 15 minutes into the film, it is a wonder to behold. The animation itself is not as sharp as other major animated releases, but there is a visionary brilliance to the way the city is realized on the screen. The skyline of the city extends to the horizon in every direction and there is so much activity filling all corners in every shot, and seeing everything interacting together is just pure fun to watch. And the city’s highway system is a wonderfully complex and absurd invention that is responsible for some of the film’s most pleasing moments.

“Robots” was made at the Fox Animation Studios, which is a tier down from the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks Animation. This accounts for why the film isn’t in any way revolutionary in regards to expanding the capabilities of computer animation. But a film in this genre doesn’t have to be brilliant in all aspects in order to work.

Surprisingly, director Chris Wedge was able to assemble an all-star cast for this works (whose paychecks may have held back the funding on animation), yet the only truly memorable performance here is by Robin Williams.

Ewan McGregor is good as Copperbottom, but almost all the other voice actors, including Drew Carey, Mel Brooks and Halle Berry, fail to leave an impression, which may be due to the lack of depth in the characters.

So the story isn’t particularly memorable and the characters aren’t anything more than recycled bits from other plots, yet the film still works because it has an energy about it because the filmmakers don’t stretch for too much. And although this movie may not have the visual sophistication and richness of the work of Pixar, it has the same amount of imagination, which is really what counts in the end. The strong sense of visuals combined with the right amount of comedy allow “Robots” to move along at a fast pace and provide breezy entertainment.

Anyone expecting the next “Finding Nemo” or “Shrek” will likely be disappointed. But on its own terms, “Robots” is funny, visually inventive and most importantly very enjoyable animated film.